Review: Hong Sang-soo’s latest makes a short, sharp and resonant ‘Introduction’ to his work
The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.
Hong Sang-soo’s “Introduction” begins with a prayer, a man’s private plea for a second chance from God. We never learn exactly what’s troubling him or if God ever comes through. Really, we don’t learn much about this particular character (he’s played by Kim Young-ho) beyond the fact that he’s overworked and easily distracted for reasons that thwart our understanding, if not our compassion. He may be an acupuncturist, but he isn’t — sorry — the point of this story.
Teasing out the point, as admirers of this prolific South Korean filmmaker will know, is part of the fun. And there is reliable fun to be had — pleasure might be a better word — in Hong’s well-traveled world of awkward encounters, amusing conversations and pervasive romantic melancholy. “Introduction,” which was shot (by Hong himself) in black-and-white and lasts a smooth 66 minutes, is another of the writer-director’s sharp, elegant miniatures. (Some recent ones include “Grass” and “Claire’s Camera.”) You could call them slices of life were it not for Hong’s consummate slyness, the games he likes to play with the possibilities of time, duration, repetition and even alternate realities. “Introduction’s” economy is deceptive, its staying power surprising.
The story unfolds in three chapters, each featuring the acupuncturist’s son, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), an earnest, good-natured young man whose handsomeness people make a habit of pointing out. The first chapter, set amid lovely flurries of snow, sees Young-ho making a rare trip to his father’s office, where their scheduled visit is delayed by the unexpected arrival of a famous actor and family friend (Gi Ju-bong). The second chapter finds Young-ho pulling off an unexpected arrival of his own, hopping on a plane and surprising his girlfriend, Ju-won (Park Mi-so), while she’s on holiday with her mother (Seo Young-hwa) in Berlin. The mother isn’t thrilled.
The third chapter introduces us to Young-ho’s own mom (Cho Yun-hee) and one of his friends (Ha Seong-guk), and also brings back that famous actor. All of them come together for what feels like the movie’s most quintessentially Hongian scene: a sit-down meal that, greased by underlying micro-tensions and large quantities of soju, gradually escalates into a boozy confrontation. It’s hard not to chuckle when the actor tries to stave off the inevitable early on: “If you drink, don’t get drunk,” he warns everyone before filling their glasses. Not get drunk! Doesn’t he know whose movie he’s in?
It’s entirely possible he does. Hong’s cinema has always had a self-reflexive, self-confessional streak, a fascination with the duplicitous, unreliable nature of men in general and of male filmmakers and actors in particular. (Young-ho, we learn, was until recently an up-and-coming actor himself.) For all that, the director’s most consistently fascinating camera subjects are women, particularly the women played by his favorite on-screen collaborator, Kim Min-hee, who has a small role here as a painter living in Berlin. (She’ll resurface in Hong’s “The Novelist’s Film,” which will premiere next month at the Berlin International Film Festival — the same festival where “Introduction” won a screenplay prize last year. Like I said: repetition.)
Each of the three stories in “Introduction” — presented in an order that we shouldn’t assume to be chronological — features a mix of men and women, and of artists and non-artists. But the most important dynamic Hong seems to be exploring here is a generational one. We observe Young-ho’s deferential if detached attitude toward his parents, with whom he never shares a solitary moment, and also Ju-won’s contrastingly closer relationship with her mother. Does the title of this lovely, dryly funny, sneakily resonant movie refer to the various interactions between characters meeting for the first time? Or could it also describe a gesture of mentorship in which an older person takes a younger one under a wing, if not always as kindly or gently as that sounds? God only knows.
In Korean with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 6 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 28, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.